Zero Degrees of Separation
In the early 1960s, I spent my share of afternoons haying with Charlie Bentley, a farmer; Dave Trachte, a local kid my age; and Herbie and Onie, two farmhands who helped out during the summer months. On sleepless nights I still recall the chugging of the baler, the whirring fingers of the tedder, the warm, throaty exhaust of the tractor, the hot vinyl seat of the green Ford pickup, the swallows swooping low to pick exposed bugs off the naked field, and the chaff of timothy as it showered down from the bale launched upwards from outstretched arms toward the towering stack above. Heat radiated in waves up from the field and outward from the hot metal of machinery; the nose was filled with the ripe, corn-mash scent of mown, compressed hay; rivulets of sweat made cool tracks as they ran in stops and starts down my neck; half-blind eyes watered and itched, and the mind was frozen with one crystal-clear image: a cold glass bottle of orange soda pop dispensed from the machine planted outside of Carl Hess’s Texaco station. And the afternoon stretched on as the universe expanded, more bales and more rows to come, until Charlie yelled out, “That’s the one we’ve been looking for,” the last bale was hoisted high, and our devout procession headed back toward the barn, the top-loaded pickup swaying as if in heavy seas, field hands walking behind like troops in retreat.
Sensory experts tell us that one’s sense of taste has much to do with the brain, with matching sensory data with stored memories. One might have perfectly healthy taste receptors as well as a keen sense of smell, yet the way in which the brain stores and retrieves this information is determinate. One experiment asked participants to sniff 10 common household odors and then to identify them; most correctly matched up fewer than half. Perhaps that’s because our modern brains have such lousy source material to work with; laundry detergent doesn’t make much of an impression.
As a kid in Vermont, however, I collected unforgettable memories: the aching cold of a swimming pond, the sweet smell of fern-dappled wetland, a good snort of wood smoke drifting through the first cold October evening, the wet vanilla-and-caramel steam from a sugarhouse, the scent of a workhorse—all dried sweat, heat, and manure—and afternoon light filtered through spider-webbed, fly-specked windows in the dairy barn. There was nothing between sensation and memory: The senses smashed headlong into the mind, burying deep, leaving immutable patterns of smells, sights, tastes, and sounds.
The modern world, however, filters the pleasure of living through infinite layers. And yet . . . I pull a Macoun apple off a tree in late September. It’s marred by a small crescent of rust and the excavation of a hungry borer, but it snaps under my bite and the juice is sweet but sour, complex, even spicy, unlike any shiny Delicious snatched from a wooden bowl in a hotel lobby. It’s not just an apple, it’s that apple off that tree on that day. I stand in the garden in August and pull a carrot and then a radish by their leafy tops. I rub off the dirt and in the mouth they go, alive and vibrant. Mouthfuls of raspberries in late June, blueberries in July, Sun Gold tomatoes in August, and then the digging of potatoes before Labor Day—bushel baskets strung out along the rows and the warm breath of dirt and roots washing upwards as I dig.
Millions of words have been written about junk and processed foods, about the failings of the USDA, about school lunches, about our diets and our health, to little effect. (McDonald’s sales rose 5 percent the year after Super Size Me hit theaters.) But few have commented on the loss of experience, about the degrees of separation between our noses and the rich scent of life. Forgive the metaphor, but the smell of Charlie Bentley’s dairy barn in July has been stamped on my brain as if hit by a locomotive, and I wouldn’t give up that memory sensation for anything. A whiff of manure—shit, if you like—is simply part of life. If you are reading this editorial now and no strong odor memories come flooding back, go out and find a dairy barn this weekend, stick your head in, and take a long, deep whiff. It’ll do you good.
Unhappiness steps through the front door when we find our lives removed from the world, from the shock and pleasure of our five senses. That’s why we cook, to remind ourselves that we are alive, that we are connected to the food chain (the less fortunate become part of it) and to the ebb and flow of nature.
Breathing filtered, conditioned air, eating processed foods, and experiencing adventure while sitting in an armchair is certainly not what Homo sapiens was designed for. I have no idea what life is really about or whether it holds meaning, but happiness is not to be found in a box of cereal, even if it does contain a prize. Living with zero degrees of separation entails risk—yes, that glass of raw milk might contain pathogens—but nothing worth doing is entirely risk-free.
So we can either turn to our kitchens as a lifestyle, or we can do it to remind ourselves that we are alive, because we want to run our fingers across a silky side of salmon or grab hold of a bloody point-cut of brisket. Damn it, don’t talk to me about calories, saturated fat, or healthy choices. I just want to experience life as fully as I can before memories of life outside my window fade forever. And that’s something that even our kids will understand.